Long before Britain, Spain could boast of an empire on which the sun never set. In the 1500s, Spain’s territories reached from beyond the Iberian Peninsula to The Netherlands and the greater part of the Americas, to Sicily and North Africa, as well as The Philippines. It would eventually collapse under its own weight and the tremendous debts incurred for its interminable wars of conquest. But Spanish ambitions extended beyond its Golden Age in the 1500s. During the American Revolutionary War, Spain came to the assistance of the Americans rebelling against Great Britain and managed to appropriate what would later become the Louisiana Purchase. This would be lost when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Spain and installed his choice of monarch on the Spanish throne.
It was King Charles IV of Spain who cast his avid eyes elsewhere in a quest that might have truly changed history. According to Chris Maxworthy, a researcher who belongs to the Australian Maritime History Association, documents show that in 1793 Charles was considering a plan to attack Australia with a fleet of more than 100 ships. His goal was to unseat the British in the continent Down Under and challenge their dominance in the Pacific. Spain wished to secure its colony in The Philippines, as well as its possessions in South America.
The British had claimed the Australian continent in 1780 when the famed Captain James Cook of the Royal Navy encountered it on his round-the-world voyage. By 1788, the British had decided to use the continent as a penal colony where criminals and obstreperous Irishmen could be sent in lieu of keeping them at public expense in Britain’s notorious prisons and prison ships.
The Spanish planned to attack the nascent city of Sydney with a fleet of mid-size vessels that would embark from South America. Spain expected that by sending troops and using the incendiary munitions of the time that the British would be routed by iron and fire. The Spanish objective, according to The Australian Financial Review, Maxworthy said, “…the complete surrender by the British and their expulsion from the Australian land mass ... The effect [of the hot shot] would be to not only impact the targets ashore but also create multiple fires in the wooden buildings of that era in Sydney, particularly if the plans occurred during the hot summer months.”
Spain was not the only European power to covet Australia. Both France and The Netherlands had designs on the continent. Nevertheless, all three of these earthly powers decided against an invasion because of its difficulty and after concluding that they would have but a Pyrrhic victory.
Spain’s plans, however, spanned several years. It was Alessandro Malaspina – an Italian in the service of Spain – who hatched the idea of invasion once it was discovered that Britain had commercial purposes in mind for Australia. Malaspina also feared that Australia could be used to launch an attack on Spanish possessions in Asia and the Americas. It was José de Bustamante y Guerra, a Spanish naval officer, who suggested the invasion to Charles IV. Bustamante was sent to Montivideo, the modern capital of Uruguay, as governor where he was to defend Spanish interests in South America and plan the invasion of Uruguay. It was a plan that was never to reach fruition.